Tillage and nutrient source effects on surface and subsurface water quality at corn planting

J Environ Qual. 2001 May-Jun;30(3):998-1008. doi: 10.2134/jeq2001.303998x.


This study quantified the effects of tillage (moldboard plowing [MP], ridge tillage [RT]) and nutrient source (manure and commercial fertilizer [urea and triple superphosphate]) on sediment, NH4+ -N, NO3- -N, total P, particulate P, and soluble P losses in surface runoff and subsurface tile drainage from a clay loam soil. Treatment effects were evaluated using simulated rainfall immediately after corn (Zea mays L.) planting, the most vulnerable period for soil erosion and water quality degradation. Sediment, total P, soluble P, and NH4+ -N losses mainly occurred in surface runoff. The NO3- -N losses primarily occurred in subsurface tile drainage. In combined (surface and subsurface) flow, the MP treatment resulted in nearly two times greater sediment loss than RT (P < 0.01). Ridge tillage with urea lost at least 11 times more NH4+ -N than any other treatment (P < 0.01). Ridge tillage with manure also had the most total and soluble P losses of all treatments (P < 0.01). If all water quality parameters were equally important, then moldboard plow with manure would result in least water quality degradation of the combined flow followed by moldboard plow with urea or ridge tillage with urea (equivalent losses) and ridge tillage with manure. Tillage systems that do not incorporate surface residue and amendments appear to be more vulnerable to soluble nutrient losses mainly in surface runoff but also in subsurface drainage (due to macropore flow). Tillage systems that thoroughly mix residue and amendments in surface soil appear to be more prone to sediment and sediment-associated nutrient (particulate P) losses via surface runoff.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture / methods*
  • Geologic Sediments / chemistry
  • Nitrogen / analysis
  • Phosphorus / analysis
  • Soil Pollutants / analysis*
  • Water Movements
  • Water Pollutants / analysis*
  • Water Pollution / prevention & control
  • Zea mays


  • Soil Pollutants
  • Water Pollutants
  • Phosphorus
  • Nitrogen